Today, the rule of law prevailed.” Former senator Antonio Trillanes IV’s reaction to the Court of Appeals ruling that junked a lower court’s decision to reinstate the rebellion charges against him is an apt verdict, and might well be a collective sigh of relief for those who had watched this Kafkaesque case unfold, stretch the limits of law, and eventually implode.
In a decision made public Tuesday, the Court of Appeals (CA) 6th Division granted Trillanes’ plea to reverse the September and December 2018 ruling of Makati City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 150 Judge Elmo Alameda, who reopened the senator’s rebellion case shortly after President Duterte issued Proclamation No. 572.
The proclamation revoked the amnesty granted Trillanes by President Benigno Aquino III in November 2010, and described it as “void from the beginning” since the senator allegedly did not admit guilt as required in the application form. Despite news coverage and footage of the senator showing the amnesty agreement, the military—the official custodian of such documents—claimed it has no record of the application as no copy of the document could be found. That meant, according to Solicitor General Jose Calida, that Trillanes’ amnesty was null and void, and the rebellion charges for his role in the 2003 Oakwood mutiny and the 2007 Manila Peninsula siege still stood.
The unprecedented revocation clearly targeted the former Navy officer, a vocal Duterte critic who has repeatedly challenged the President to open his bank records for public scrutiny.
The initiative, according to Armed Forces of the Philippines sources, was instigated by Calida, whose controversial security agency was the subject of a committee inquiry led by Trillanes. The campaign also involved the eager participation of low-ranking military and defense officials in a coordinated news conference, the timely filing of a motion for a hold departure order for the senator, and an arrest order that was, however, blocked by the Senate.
The decision of Makati RTC Branch 148 Presiding Judge Andres Soriano to read the case files and schedule several hearings on the case before releasing a decision provided temporary relief to Trillanes. Until Alameda’s ruling.
It is this ruling that the CA decision this week described as a “grave abuse of discretion,” because it revived criminal action against Trillanes without “full evidentiary hearing.” Instead, the CA noted, Alameda’s court merely conducted a summary hearing and “limited itself only to hearing oral arguments and receiving affidavits.”
The CA maintained that the process of revoking an amnesty and returning the charges stemming from it “entails a proper judicial inquiry… (that can be initiated) via the proper legal tools and remedies with the proper court clothed with jurisdiction.”
The CA decision is the latest in a series of rulings that showed how some courts are firmly standing by the rule of law against the stranglehold of politics on the country’s judicial system. Just two weeks ago, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the 2016 election victory of Vice President Leni Robredo, tossing out allegations of fraud filed by former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, despite several attempts to railroad the process by Calida, a known Marcos supporter.
Early last month, the Sandiganbayan found convicted plunderer Janet Lim Napoles, the alleged brains of the P10-billion pork barrel scam, guilty of graft and malversation of public funds amounting to P28 million. The ruling effectively quashed a government plan by then Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II to foist Napoles as a state witness in the case.
Also last month, the anti-graft court ordered the forfeiture of P102 million worth of properties amassed by retired Lt. Gen. Jacinto Ligot for being “unlawfully acquired.” A Muntinlupa City court meanwhile acquitted Sen. Leila de Lima on one of three drug cases filed against her, citing the “prosecution’s failure to elicit strong evidence to sustain a finding of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.” De Lima, an outspoken critic of President Duterte who had questioned the human rights abuses of the then Davao city mayor when she headed the Commission on Human Rights, has been detained since February 2017, on drug charges based mainly on the testimonies of convicted drug felons.
The increasingly independent stance that the courts have manifested of late is a welcome development—and may there be more of it. The pushback is a necessary workout, a crucial flexing of judicial muscle in this year immediately preceding an election year when, no doubt, the rigors of just governance and the rule of law would be most sorely tested.
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